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The Earl's Wager
A Reluctant Bride Novel
By Rebecca Thomas, Robin Haseltine
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Rebecca Thomas
All rights reserved.
After spending several months in Ireland getting his estates in order, Will Sutton, the Earl of Grandleigh, was glad to be back on English soil, and happier still to join his brother-in-law, Oliver Westwyck, the Earl of Marsdale, at the racetrack. The man knew his horseflesh, and Will was interested in gleaning any knowledge he could from him.
When Marsdale had need of a wife, Will had known the perfect candidate was his sister. The two of them shared a fascination with horses, and Autumn Ridge's stud farm and racing stables would only flourish under the influence of his sister, Arabella. Fortunately, he'd convinced his headstrong sister to trust his matchmaking skills, and they'd been happy ever since.
Gambling at the racetrack hadn't been a pastime of Will's until Oliver and Arabella took to racing. His brother-in-law had a keen interest in bloodlines and breeding, whereas his sister preferred to be out with the horses learning from their trainer and expressing her opinions. Together, they made an extraordinary team, and the Marsdale stable had been winning races.
The racetrack was nestled between rolling countryside and a row of houses on an adjacent hill. Jockeys carried saddles and bridles between stables, while journalists, townspeople, and spectators from all areas and generations crowded around the track. Will maneuvered through people milling in different directions before spotting the tall frame and broad shoulders of his brother-in-law, standing with his forearms propped against a fence. His gaze squinted in the direction of the starting line, where eight horses approached.
"Do you have a horse in this race?" Will asked as he came up beside him.
Oliver looked surprised before slapping Will on the back. "You made it here in time. A pleasure to see you. Arabella will be pleased to know you've returned home safely."
"I've been able to make the much-needed improvements to my estates, and I'll be profitable in Ireland soon. So profitable, I intend to buy myself a fine racing thoroughbred before the year is out."
"You know my thoroughbred bloodlines are the best in England." Marsdale glanced toward the starting line again.
"Yes, of course, and perhaps I can negotiate a family discount on a fine racing steed," Will chided.
Marsdale clasped his hands together. His brows turned inward in thought. "I've no need of your funds, but I do have need of your assistance. And as I recall, you've acted as a kind of matchmaker in the past."
"Yes, I suppose I have." Will smiled and gazed up at a two-story building across the track. Elegantly dressed women strolled across the upper deck. "Despite some resistance from my sister."
"Yes, well, while you've been gone visiting your Irish estates, I've being saddled with my American cousin."
"Saddled? Mmm ... sounds ominous." Two redheaded boys wearing muddy knickers with holes in the knees chased each other between the throngs of visitors. They dashed between bodies like mice running through a cornfield. They barely missed hitting an elderly man holding a cane.
"She's become an heiress since my uncle died, and the will named her as my ward." Marsdale remained contemplative. "I'm to see her properly married off."
Will turned his attention back to his brother-in-law instead of his surroundings. "If she's an heiress, as you say, I'm sure you won't have any problems finding any number of suitors. In fact, they'll be banging down your door."
"Precisely what I don't want. A bunch of hounds sniffing around her for a free meal doesn't interest me, even if the little minx deserves it." Marsdale stepped back from the railing.
Will's interest piqued. "Deserves it? And why would you say that?"
"She's a hellion of the first order. But that doesn't mean I want her shackled to a scoundrel or a rake."
"Well, no. Certainly not. She is your cousin, after all, hellion or not." Marsdale was obviously being a little harsh in his opinion — no woman could be that vexing.
"Indeed. That's why I haven't let it be known about her financial situation. Of course, she'll have a respectable dowry, more than respectable actually, but I want an advantageous match for her. One she'll be content with. I can't have a high-handed man as her husband. I'm not expecting a love match by any means, but one that's agreeable to her." Marsdale glanced at the spectators swarming around them, nearly jostling them with their anxiousness to get near the railing. Displeasure lined the creases around his eyes.
"That shouldn't be so difficult." Even as he said the words, Will wasn't sure he spoke the truth. Maybe he'd had the ability to make decisions on behalf of Arabella and what he deemed best for her because she was his sister, but an American cousin was an altogether different situation. "I've a few wealthy American merchants in my acquaintance. I could arrange an introduction for you."
"I want Georgia to marry a peer," Oliver said simply.
Will narrowed his eyes. He wasn't certain what to make of his brother-inlaw's declaration. Titled British peers with reasonable repute amongst the ton didn't marry American women. It just wasn't done. "She's American, you say? And a hellion? Most peers want to marry a biddable English bride, as you well know. But, regardless, I need to meet this cousin of yours."
"Yes, you shall." Did he detect a hint of annoyance in the man's voice? "In fact, she was supposed to meet me here, but I don't know where she's gone. Typical of her."
Finding a match for Oliver's cousin could prove difficult if the chit really was a hellion. But, truly, how much trouble could one woman be?
Spectators packed in around them, exchanging banter about who would win the race and who would certainly lose.
All eyes turned to the starting gate.
The gun blast sounded. Horses burst past the starting line, followed by the thunderous pounding of hooves. That rhythmic beat, along with the exuberant voices from the patrons, made for such great excitement, Will was more determined than ever to be part of this world.
Will asked, "Which horse is yours?"
"The black with the jockey in the yellow and blue silks."
The black horse was in the middle of the pack.
"Do you think the colt has a chance to win?"
"I'm not sure. According to Georgia, he only runs well for her. But she convinced me to try him anyway."
"Runs well for her? So she races this horse?" Will couldn't hide his cynicism.
"I've been allowing her to ride this particular horse on some training runs, but racing? No, of course not."
Although dumbfounded, Will understood the persuasive powers of a strong-willed woman. His sister managed to ride alone and astride, even though he had forbidden it. It sounded as if Marsdale's cousin might be cut from the same cloth.
"So your cousin claims this horse won't run well for this jockey?"
"She says he's an unproven jockey and that Perseus is particular about who's on his back."
As if the horse in question knew they were speaking about his abilities, he surged forward, putting distance between himself and the stragglers amongst the pack.
"Interesting. This new jockey seems to be doing a fine job, however."
"Yes, it appears so." Marsdale scowled. "Although, I will admit the man doesn't have the best seat."
Will noted his displeasure and asked, "Is the horse untried, then?"
"No, not completely. He's won a few short-distance races. I've been offered thirty pounds for him."
"Good God, you don't say." The amount was shocking — he'd had no idea the cost of good racing stock. If he was going to compete, he would need a substantial family discount.
"I told you my horses have the best racing bloodlines in —"
"Best bloodlines in all of England. Yes, yes, so you've said."
Marsdale glanced away from the track for a brief moment to make eye contact with Will. "And you said you'd like to try racing."
Will shook his head. "Not for that price, I won't."
"We might be able to cut a deal then." Marsdale absently rubbed his chin. "A wager of sorts."
"What kind of wager?" Unless the odds were clearly stacked in his favor, Will wasn't generally the gambling sort, but he'd listen to the proposal.
"If you put your matchmaking abilities to good use and find a suitable match for my cousin, I'll give you that horse."
"That horse!" Will gestured to the racetrack as the troupe of eight horses passed. The black edged into the lead. "The one that's pulling ahead? That's your horse?"
"Yes, that's the one." Oliver beamed.
"Is that horse expected to win?" The crowd made a crescendo of noise in what appeared to be awe over the black taking the lead.
"No, but Georgia kept insisting he was capable of winning." Oliver made a quick survey of the crowd behind Will. "Blast. Where is she, anyway?"
Will kept his eyes glued to the race. "Your black is keeping the lead."
Oliver leaned into the railing, gripping the edge of the fence. "It appears so."
"And if I can't make a match for your cousin?"
"You won't be in the racing business, or at least you won't be winning in the racing business." His brother-in-law sounded fairly certain of that fact.
The black stayed in the front of the pack, but another contender was close on his flank. "Your new jockey seems to be doing a fine job."
"So it seems," Oliver said skeptically.
"If I don't make a match for your cousin, my only loss is not getting that fine horse of yours?" A part of the wager must be missing. "There doesn't seem to be a negative side. I'm imagining that the girl must not be the prettiest thing?"
"Quite the contrary," Marsdale said without moving a muscle, his gaze locked on the horses nearing the finish line. "My horse is holding steady. Remarkable."
The black was barely in the lead when they crossed the finish line. In fact, the horses were so closely aligned, the winner was unclear.
"I think your horse has done it!" Will called out over the roar of the spectators.
"I think he has, but he might be your horse soon." Oliver grinned with gusto. "You have a winner on your hands!"
"I'd love nothing more than a stallion like that as the breeding foundation of my stables. But before we get into all that, I can't understand why you need my help. You said she has a decent-size dowry, but not overly large because you don't want every bachelor in England chasing after her. She's relatively attractive? Is she too old? Is that it?"
Oliver moved away from the fence and gestured for Will to follow him to the finish line. "She's four and twenty. A bit past the prime marriageable age, but certainly not on the shelf."
"Certainly not. Arabella is a year older, and you married her just last year."
"Yes. Quite." Oliver lead the way to the course's termination point.
"Then I don't understand. Why do you need my help?" He really shouldn't argue. The odds of the wager appeared to be in his favor, and soon he'd be the owner of a fine racing colt. They had to stop to let a curricle pass before they trekked on to the finish line.
"My cousin requires some tutelage in English customs and expectations. My aunt died when the girl was young, so she didn't have a woman's influence. And she's American. What do they know of good manners?"
"Yes, I suppose." Will nodded, wondering again what could be wrong with the chit. He admitted he enjoyed matching Arabella and Oliver, had received a modicum of satisfaction knowing their marital happiness was because he brought the two of them together. "Being an American doesn't make her barbaric by any means, and with a decent dowry, she'll have suitors regardless."
"You'll have to get her into a ballroom at some point." Marsdale strode ahead, darting between people so quickly, Will could barely keep up and avoid knocking someone over in the process.
"Where are we going?" he called out.
"To the weighing house. They must record the weight of each jockey again."
"I see," Will replied. "I've much to learn if I'm to become a racehorse owner."
"Yes, you do."
"So the girl is somewhat of a project. An undertaking, if you will." His interest in Marsdale's American cousin and her marriageable status, or lack thereof, started to take hold in his mind. He had a real opportunity here. He imagined a few dancing lessons and instruction in English customs — the proper way to curtsy, which utensils to use at each meal. He rubbed his chin. "I should like a challenge, and I should like to get into the racing business. But if I don't manage to arrange a good match, what shall I pay you in return?"
"We'll think of something. Maybe you'll have to muck out my stalls for a fortnight."
Will laughed as if agreeing with a good joke. Surely Marsdale couldn't be serious. After all, that's what grooms were for.
They approached the weighing room, where two large scales were fixed to the center of the ceiling. But the Autumn Ridge stable's colors of yellow and blue were nowhere to be seen.
"Congratulations, Marsdale!" a gentleman called out and slapped Oliver on the shoulder as he passed.
Another finely dressed gentleman approached them. "I lost money because of your horse today, Marsdale."
Oliver grinned. "I didn't think this jockey would do so well on Perseus."
"He certainly did." The gentleman continued past them.
Oliver turned to Will. "I suppose I let Georgia influence me, as she knows the horse better than I. She said he had it in him."
"You have other, faster horses, then?" Will asked.
"Yes, of course. Do you think I'd offer you my very best stud? Give me some credit. Come. They must have already weighed in and are at the stables now. Let's meet the horse I've offered up."
Will straightened the lapels of his coat and brushed at the dust collected from the racetrack. "Absolutely."
"But before we go ..." Oliver stopped short. "Do we indeed have a wager?"
Will didn't think getting into the thoroughbred racing business could be this easy. And he didn't even have to spend any blunt to do it. He felt like he'd just won the race and that horse was as good as his. "Yes, I think we do, unless you think I need to evaluate my project first?"
"That's entirely up to you." Marsdale gave him a serious stare.
Will would be insane to give up an opportunity like this. Earn a racehorse — a winning racehorse, no less. He stuck out his hand. "Shall we shake on it?"
"All right, then." Oliver shook his hand then turned to continue to the stable. The entire time he scanned the faces of the ladies in the crowd. "Speaking of my dear cousin, she was supposed to watch the race with me. I need to find her. No telling what kind of mischief she's up to."
Again, Will wondered why Marsdale wanted him to take on this matchmaking project. The woman was his cousin, after all. Wouldn't he want to oversee such matters? "I am curious why you aren't wanting to be more involved in securing your cousin a match. Why me?"
"You're a proven matchmaker. And I need to keep an eye on your sister. Besides, you know I have no interest in the marriage mart. Whereas you are unmarried — you have more interest than I."
"I suppose you're right." Will was grateful for his trust, and regardless, he owed the man a great deal. When he made the match between Marsdale and his sister, Oliver had paid off the debts Will's father had incurred after making poor business decisions. So no matter what, he owed Marsdale.
Besides, how much trouble could one American girl be?
"Follow me," Oliver said.
They walked amongst the throng of horses, women, and men, weaving around the people talking to their jockeys as they lead their horses to the stables. They approached the stall with an Autumn Ridge sign posted outside the gate, where a bearded older man conversed with the jockey on the opposite side of Will's soon-to-be racehorse.
"What on earth ... Georgie? What have you done?" Marsdale groaned. He opened the stall gate, and Will followed.
"I can explain everything, Oliver," said the jockey.
What kind of jockey addressed an earl by his given name? Will rounded Marsdale's shoulder and eyed the jockey in question. Long strands of walnut-colored hair sprang out from his cap. The jockey removed his goggles from a dirt-covered face.
"I'd like to introduce you to my cousin, Miss Georgia Duvall," Marsdale's voice rumbled, but Will was so stunned, he wondered if he'd heard the words correctly.
Excerpted from The Earl's Wager by Rebecca Thomas, Robin Haseltine. Copyright © 2016 Rebecca Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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